(note : this is still a draft, any reactions welcome)
I recently watched a youtube video called “video games and the human condition”, by Jonathan Blow. The man who created Braid was essentially making a point about how games are designed around our “human condition”. He mainly referred to our evolutionary traits, our built-in mechanism of response to positive and negative stimuli, that are the basis for the creation of addiction. His point, which is something I have had in mind for a while now, is that games, as a true form of art, shall not give into the easy process of pulling that rope. Thou shall not exploit human’s weakness to addiction in designing your game, and what is more, designing your business plan.
Examples are well known : Blizzard’s games (at least since WoW) incorporate such mechanisms, by putting the player in a situation where succeeding at the game means getting items or achievements that require a huge involvement in time spent playing. The gameplay is designed around creating desire in the player for elements that will make him feel more successful, more unique, in the game. This is mostly done by putting everyone in rivalry, or in comparison, two things that are essentially similar. (For example the randomness of loot linked with the possibility of buying and selling them creates such a global comparison/competition between players, allowing them to involve time and resources in becoming more unique, and therefore “win” the competition). Farmville puts the same kind of limitation of people by allowing only a certain set of possible actions during a certain span of time. Other games such as Gears of War of the Call of Duty, or the Battlefield series, have seen a similar development of in-game “unlockables” and “ribbons” and stats of all sorts reported in leaderboards. Those elements all converge towards the same goal, which is to trigger a certain human mechanism of desire through enlarging comparison between player, a comparison that has the form of a competition (whether it is indirect, or in the shape of “keeping it up with the Joneses”).
Now I agree with Jonathan blow on this analysis, and I agree on the idea that games that do not pull that rope, or do it with respect of the player, are intrinsically “better” - as he points out, the question is not “is this game fun”, but “is this game providing (existential) meaning to me”.
I would like to add a few ideas to his analysis, in the sense that our “human condition” still escapes a clear definition in his explanation, or in any explanation by the way. But this element of our human condition lies in every game and how well the game designers understand it defines how deep the game feels to the player ultimately.
I will take four examples to illustrate establish the origin of the concept I want to use in order to define “human condition”, which is mimesis of appropriation (or “imitation of what one thinks others want” or, “A wants X because A thinks B wants X” whether B really does want it or not). This is still just a draft, trying to make a point about how the game design controls the imitative behaviour influences the player’s experience.
1 - The Battlefield 2 disappointment.
I still remember the day BF2 was announced, and the day I launched it and thought “this is the real multiplayer FPS we were waiting for”. The squad system and all, it seemed perfect. There was the commander, the respawn system on the leader… In the first days and weeks I was imagining that the game would inspire players to play as a collective entity, as a team, that it would be obvious that to have fun, you’d have to play the game well, which would mean acting as a real squad. Many players hoped for that, but apart from guys actively playing in clans, that never happened.
Instead the game often (like 75% of the time) was a disappointment. Sure it was fun, but so much under what it could have been. At every game session one could feel the potential it has, spoiled by the players themselves… ? Question mark. I used to believe, at that point, that players were the problem of multiplayer games ! But no, of course not. The thing was that BF2 did not understand our “human condition” well enough to be structured accordingly.
One of the typical situations going on in the game would be this feeling of the impossibility of strategy in a game that felt like it was the best way to play it to be strategic. Countless times the two teams would just fight over a single control point aimlessly, respawning players would just run to it and get shot in an instant, ad nauseam. The was a sort of crystallization around a single spot on the map that was totally “irrational” and from which the game was offering few options to escape. This happens in all multiplayer FPS games with control points, like TF2, but I’ll come to that example in a minute.
The typical response to those problems was for the dev team to look for “balance issues” in terms of weaponry, respawn time and such. But they could “rebalance” as much as they wanted, the gameplay was flawed. What was the flaw ? The game was drawing people towards the same resources (control points) in a mimetic fashion : team A thinks (or sees) team B wants the control point X, and it becomes it’s obsession to get it. In return team B sees that team A wants this point, and adopts a similar posture, a mimetic behaviour targeting the intentions of the other, not the actual real strategic value of the resource disputed. The desire of A is a copy of what A thinks is the desire of B. And the desire of B is a copy of the desire of A… who thinks it is the desire of B. This loop is a mimetic loop creating a sort of addiction : nothing else matters than to get the goddamn control point because the other one wants it, and so do (consequently) we. This is the fundamental “human condition” mechanism at play : mimesis of appropriation.
All mammals do that, but primates more intensely, and we are the most intense animals when it comes to obey this mechanism. Think of two people converging towards the same parking slot, and the violence that can come out of it if no ones abandons it to the other. Think of how children can fight for an insignificant toy just because they want to take it from the hands of the other kid. They could well have an exact same other toy, and it wouldn’t matter.
It is that same essential mechanism that was destroying the strategic potential of BF2. In some maps more than in others, but overall this was the case. Unless you had the chance to play on a server where players themselves were enforcing their normativity on the game, and deliberately resisting mimesis of appropriation to establish strategy in their actions. Fun was possible in BF2, but only if the players were disciplined enough to bring it to the game. Which, in terms of game design, is a failure.
2 - Team Fortress 2 doing it right.
This is an inevitable phenomenon that happens in all games where a non-shareable resource is disputed by two teams. The rules have to provide an option to the players to compete for it and not getting stuck in a mimetic loop, where both teams repeat the same obsessive actions ad infinitum, therefore not enjoying the gameplay itself (in BF2 : the strategy).
Such a structuration is found in TF2, for an example. Again, it is not perfectly there. From time to time one can end up in those mimetic situations where both teams just fight to death in the same corridor with no one actually really enjoying it (except maybe the übered heavy dominating half of the map - and I say this as a joke but I will come back to that mechanism later).
Let me take an example. I remember playing with a friend once on a map where this mimetic loop happened again. The vast majority of the players were killing each other at the exact same door leading to the last control point, over and over again. As the attackers were running low on time, they were just trying to push it. It was a bit absurd though, since other paths were also available to enter the last desired room everyone was fighting over. But once you get into that mimetic loop, everyone forgets about it. But suddenly my friend - despite the fact the team didn’t have much time for that - withdrew from the situation and took the other, long route. As a result he suddenly shifted the focus of the defenders towards the other entrance, and broke the mimetic loop. The attacking team won in extremis.
This example may look trivial, but it bears a fundamental difference with the situation in BF2. In here the gameplay itself - its design - incorporated a solution to break the mimetic crystallisation. As the dev team itself likes to mention for TF2, all maps are designed with many openings and alternate routes to fluidify the game. What it does fluidify is precisely those “choking points” that are spontaneously created by mimesis of appropriation, by our “human condition”.
TF2 is full of little details that are designed to limit the occurrence of mimetic behaviour. The fact that each class of character counter-picks another one, creating this rock-paper-scissors mechanism in the game. The random crits mechanism that brings inflexion of luck in potentially stagnating fight zones. And the domination system which, as fun as it is, also serves another function, which is to bring a specific information to the team being dominated. This information is not really about the skill of the other team, but about the state of the game being played : when dominations starts appearing in patterns, the other team gets the signal that his strategic behaviour is poor, and that it is possibly behaving mimetically at a time when it makes no sense.
So instead of attackers rushing to get the control point one by one after respawn, and getting dominated by a single turret, they might actually get a reality call and realize that they should wait for more players to launch an attack. This becomes possible without the intervention of a “commander” overlooking the map, who is himself subject to the mimetic behaviour (in BF2 commanders were most of the time following the flow and wasting resources). In TF2 a simple mechanism such as the domination one brings essential information to allow players who are not linked on voice chat or anything else, to analyze their own pattern of play in a very simple - but sometimes sufficient to generate teamplay - way.
In this perspective the game design of TF2 succeeds where BF2 failed : generating a certain degree of cooperation between players through the very structure of the game (maps, game mechanics, how information is sent to players). TF2 is not perfect in that respect either - no game is - but the design shows more maturity in that specific area of the design.
One may also add that, what is more, the dev team understood when it could be pulling the mimetic rope or not. Mimesis is actually very present “around” the game, in the item drop system. The hats are a very mimetic driven resource - only one that does not impact much on gameplay itself. People want those hats, especially if they are rare. Someone once offered me a new game of my choice in exchange of my Bill’s hat (that only players who owned Left 4 Dead got at the time). In that area, players are indeed manipulated and somewhat prompt to addiction - under the specific form of collectionning. But it is not breaking the game itself, it’s core design, even though it may be judged manipulative, and ultimately less respectful to the players than just making those objects available for free or at will.
3 - Braid.
As for many, Braid was really a sort of revelation to me as to what the media of video game could be in terms of specific media. The game is an incredibly harmonious work between gameplay and game content, and meaning-generating experience.
For a while I tried to understand what was so special in it to make you feel so good about playing it, especially a few hours after your game session. It was not the challenging aspect of the puzzles. It was the type of challenge it was offering.
And that is a non-mimetic one. That is a challenge in which you are not manipulated at imitating someone else’s intentions of getting a given resource. You can only imitate your own intention, that is being in a rivalry with yourself. The gameplay mechanism of rewinding time made this rivalry possible in the best way because you could never lose against yourself, only get better and learn from your mistakes. This rivalry was actually turned into a cooperation with yourself, rather than a fight. In anthropological terms this game established “positive mimesis” and not “negative mimesis”. In positive mimesis you imitate an intention to reach the same goal without wanting to be the sole owner of the resource. In negative mimesis, you think you have to kill the other one to get the resource because it cannot be shared.
Braid did many things right to achieve that. First, it’s a single player game - at the exception of the speed run leaderboards that introduce a form of competition in the game. But even then, being successful at the speed run means sharing a better knowledge of the puzzles with others, which they can benefit from. They might want to beat you (which is entering in a rivalry) but to do so, they will first need to cooperate with themselves to get better at solving the puzzles. That’s the second things it does right : the game mechanism eliminates frustration in the rivalry with yourself. You are never “not good enough” to succeed, you’re always “not good enough… yet”. You don’t know when you’ll solve the puzzle, but you know you will.
This last element is important : controlled randomness. It works, in a way, like the crits in TF2, bringing some certainty value to your actions, even though you can’t predict how they will turn out exactly. It is interesting to notice the presence of random mechanisms when you know that all cultures in human history have always used randomness to put an end to injustice around shared resources. For an example, the Egyptians were sharing the shores of the Nil river this way. The parcels to cultivate were available in limited amount, and they were not all equal in terms of quality. What they did was to attribute them each year randomly to the farmers, with the corrective mechanism of being insured against bad luck. As a farmer, you knew you would have the good parcels at least one time in, say, 5 years. You didn’t know when, but you knew you would eventually. This was very effective in stopping people to kill each other for the best parcels.
Back to game design, a similar function is met by random mechanisms. Whether it is in a multiplayer or single player game, the role of a certain event occurring randomly fulfills the function of defusing extreme forms of tension and rivalries. You might be dominated at some point in your TF2 game, but all of a sudden your crit rocket sends half of the opposite team back to the respawn point. Unfair, but very fair indeed - as in establishing-good-mimesis-fair.
In Braid you might get stuck for a while on a certain level, but your trials and error and thinking will get you out of it for sure. You know this because you know the game developer is not messing around with you, being dishonest into building impossible puzzles. Everytime you find the solution to one you have this eureka moment “it was so simple, how did I not see it ??”.
It respects the player in not placing him in a situation where he will be encouraged to behave mimetically without options to get out of the mimetic loop. (In this case, just failing without seeing hope for success, leading to frustration).
4 - Minecraft and the multidirectional mimetic flow.
Last but not least, Minecraft comes in as another example of mimesis done right. It is still hard to see how exactly it does it right, but it does.
The first thing a Minecraft player will notice is how any single interaction he has with the game and the world in the game will leave a trace. And after a few hours, what the player sees his a game-filtered reflection of himself, of something deep in him. Just like when one draws or builds something with Lego blocks. So the first thing the game does to you is mirroring something in you : how did you shape your house (if you made any), your mine, which is the spot you chose to play in, etc.
The second thing one may notice is how hard it is to achieve some of the most elaborate things in the game, such as intricate redstone (electrical) systems, and how knowledge has (most of the time) to be shared with others in order to enjoy those aspects of the game.
Then you have the ecosystem of the world itself resisting you : you have to find the resources, protect yourself from various dangers, and to understand how minerals, plants and animals can be associated to produce new materials leading to new gameplay possibilities.
It is not so much that it gives your imagination a lot of room (even if that is the case). It is that all actions you’ll want to perform will need you to develop the gameplay itself - and again the only rivalry that this allows is one with yourself… at which you can’t really fail given the fact that any block can be mined and re-built.
The game produces meaning all the way along the experience because the only way to play is to put some meaning in it. You cannot play the game by competing with something, not even the monsters present at night. Any single action requires a decision that will become obvious to you after you’ve actually made it real through your actions. “Did I build this ??” or “What was I trying to do here ?” often comes to mind when playing.
In this sense the game is like BF2 while at the same time being the exact opposite of a BF2-shaped world : it does not give you options to get away from mimesis of appropriation because it just does not generate any. If many people just seeing the trailer of the game, or hearing people talk about it respond by “I don’t see the point”, it is precisely because the point is that the game design is not about what usual games are about, which is giving you a predefined point (how to win at the game) through competitive actions to resolve. The “rivalry” generated in Minecraft is almost 100% “good mimesis”, in the sense that it requires you to put cooperation and meaning in all you do in order to enjoy the game.
The “human condition” is indeed a prevalent element in game design and, understood in mimetic terms, shows how games succeed or fail at inspiring players who play them, to the point that it can become a tool of introspection, as well as an opportunity to relate to more general questions about how actions take their meaning, and how different principles of behaviour can change the result of your actions.
Game design is yet still in its infancy, but already game developers are seeing the potential in providing the player with a respectful, existential, meaningful experience in a way that no other media can.